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Montford Point Marines receive nation's highest civilian honor

READ MORE: Montford Point Marines receive nation's highest civilian honor

WASHINGTON, DC (WWAY) -- Decades after Montford Point at Camp Lejeune closed its doors, hundreds of black Marines who trained there received a major recognition Wednesday.

After more than 60 years, about 400 Marines were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, DC, and a handful of those are from right here in the Port City.

"I don't think that we imagined anything like this would happen in our lifetime," said William McDowell, a Montford Point Marine, who accepted the medal on behalf of the other honorees.

The Marines of Montford Point were the first African-Americans to join the Marine Corps, after finally being allowed to serve in 1942. Wednesday House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) presented the Marines with the highest civilian honor the government bestows.

"My heart is literally filled with joy," said F.M. Hooper, a Montford Point Marine who lives in Wilmington.

Hooper joined the Marines in 1949. He trained at Montford Point, but also saw the Corps transition to desegregation.

"The units were combined. Blacks and whites started working as a team," Hooper said. "It was a very enjoyable way to leave."

"In the face of intolerance and discrimination, the Montford Point Marines served our country with honor and distinction and for that they are true heroes," Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) said during the ceremony.

From 1942 to 1949, about 20,000 black recruits trained at Montford Point. The majority of them served overseas during World War II. They were held out of white training grounds and many times out of battle. At the time they were seen as unfit for the role.

Last year, Congress unanimously passed a resolution to give the prestigious award to the Montford Pointers.

"Today the Corps is stronger because of your service," Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) said. "Today America is greater because of your sacrifices."

The Marines will each receive personal Congressional Gold Medals in another formal ceremony Thursday at the Commandant's House in Washington.

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